Tower Prep is a failure. Cartoon Network’s newest live-action series has been a complete ratings flop, despite relentless advertising campaigns that included an iPod Touch giveaway. I don’t know what Cartoon Network is looking for, but this show clearly does not have it. Last night, I watched an episode of Tower Prep, and while I was far from impressed, I have to admit it was creative, fun, and perfectly watchable. But the main lasting impression I got from watching Tower Prep was that the people in charge, both the creator and the executives, were fish-out-of-water. They certainly wanted it to succeed, and they wanted it to be good too. They just didn’t know what they were doing.
What if I told you that Cartoon Network was developing a new series created by Paul Dini, a veteran cartoon writer who has spent years bringing DC characters to the small screen. Then imagine that this series revolved around a teenage boy who mysteriously woke up in a boarding school, with no memory of how he got there. Imagine further that he soon discovers that everyone at the school has superpowers, and they have to use them to escape. That sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? If you hadn’t heard of Cartoon Network’s recent experimentation with live-action, you might think that Tower Prep was a very cool, very creative upcoming cartoon, with all the right ingredients for success. But when you tack on the words “hour-long drama” to that otherwise appealing premise, it sinks like a lead weight. It becomes a disaster of epic proportions? Why? Because it was created by a cartoonist, and it was made for a channel that is primarily frequented by animation fans. It’s a cartoon in a live-action costume, and the results are not pretty.
The first thing: the hour- long format takes away from the show’s pacing. Dini has spent his entire career writing 30-minute shows, which have to be fast paced with quick, functional dialogue in order to work properly. But in Tower Prep, Dini’s functional dialogue seems stale and minimalistic. That’s because he’s taken the amount of talking that could have gone on in a 30-minute show and stretched it out to a full hour. A one-hour show is justified if you’re going to pack it full of action and story; heck, I wish that some of my favorite cartoons would have full-hour episodes, but this show just doesn’t seem to need the extra half-hour. Not much happens at all in the first episode of Tower Prep, Sym-Bionic Titan does twice as much in a half-hour as Tower Prep does in a full hour. Also, with live-action actors, the interplay between the characters is much more essential, because without funny drawings, over-the-top villains, and exaggerated facial expressions, unadorned dialogue packs a lot less punch. The result is characters that don’t seem fully developed. Instead of having the option of giving a character a design that can explain their personality in a single look, all the characters just look like generic teen actors: bland Nick and Disney-fair who don’t look much different from anyone else on TV.
Another thing lost in the translation from cartoon to live-action is the ability to create compelling action sequences. While animation is generally more expensive than live action, it does create staging action sequences and make them believable a lot easier than live-action can. The grunt villains of the series, called ‘gnomes’, have flashlight eyes that shine green/red — a great visual. But instead of having a scary character design, or creating a cool lighting situation, they just look like guys in helmets: they’re sort of lame and definitely not scary. It’s easier to believe something when it’s animated because it will automatically fit in with the look of the show, but it seems Dini and his team have yet to figure out how to make live-action visuals that are anywhere near as compelling.
But the blame doesn’t fall entirely on Paul Dini and his team. He’s clearly trying to make the best of a bad situation. The executives at Cartoon Network, however, don’t know how to handle an hour-long show. Their live-action reality shows, which are only a half hour, are infinitely more popular. This is because the executives can pick them in the same way they pick their cartoons — over-the-top premises, short, action–packed, bite-sized shows filled with antics and humor. However, Cartoon Network has no idea how to pick drama series. Any other executive could have told them that Tower Prep didn’t have the right ingredients to be an hour-long drama, or that they could never sell it to their key demographics. But they didn’t know, so they went ahead and put quite a bit of time and money into making a show that would be essentially dead-on-arrival.
However, the set of circumstances that are destroying Tower Prep are actually rather unfortunate, because the show actually has a pretty cool idea behind it. By having his protagonist essentially kidnapped by a school, Dini has essentially provided the moral means for an all-out “student vs. teacher” war: a pillar of children’s programming that has always been a sensitive issue with parents. His superpowers are understated but original, and not the typical elemental or strength-based powers that have become so cliché — indeed, the “social superpowers” that the characters of Tower Prep display are very intriguing.
Tower Prep could have been a great cartoon. It had all the right ingredients to be a great half-hour action show, but Cartoon Network blew it. Instead of being a great cartoon, Tower Prep is now nothing more then a completely mediocre live-action series that is doomed to cancellation. What a shame.